Ryo Kato is a contemporary artist living in Berlin, Germany. By developing his own style of painting, he hopes to articulate his political message, which is mainly inspired by the perception that the relationship between humans and their environment has turned into a one sided exploitation, likely to end in disaster. Even though I have known Ryo for some years, it was this close relationship between content and its expression so often painfully absent from contemporary art, which provided the incentive for conducting this interview.
Some of Ryo’s work can be found on his website: www.ryosart.de.
D.S.: How do classify your art yourself? Do you only do painting or other things as well? I have seen some of your painting which almost transitioned into sculptures.
R.K.: My means of expression is mainly painting. However as you have seen yourself, I also glued objects on the canvas. I use collage techniques as well. That happens spontaneously, it’s a kind of inspiration. I don’t want the technique to exist before the art; rather it is part of my expression.
D.S.: So you decide in the process. How long do you normally take to produce a piece?
R.K.: This differs greatly. As you can see the formats are very different. But well, on average I take between ten days and three weeks for one painting.
D.S: You migrated from Japan to Paris but you weren’t happy there. Then you came to Berlin and you seem to do very well here and have a family now. What is it that you like about Berlin or what was it that you disappointed you about Paris?
R.K.: At first I was influenced by Impressionism and this is why I was longing for Paris. But this was when I was still only 15 or 16 years old. The idea to go to France, to Paris came very early. Yet during the preparation time many things changed. I wasn’t very interested in classical art anymore and I started to like contemporary art. It was then that I learned that German artists at the time were doing very modern things – but this was just before my departure. So I thought to myself: I have already prepared a lot of stuff for France, learned the language and so on, the important thing is first to leave Japan and afterwards see what happens.
It turned out exactly as I had imagined and Paris was a disappointment. The art scene there is rather oldfashioned. There is contemporary art, but classic art is still more prestigious. The people think very conservatively and what the artists are doing often appears to me to be highly commercial. Another reason is that, with regard to the city as a place to live, I always felt much excluded, very foreign. The French are not very open to other cultures. They do have great interest in Japanese culture, but they always viewed me as exactly that, a Japanese, a foreigner. I didn’t feel free.
Because of my interest in contemporary art I was than interested in Düsseldorf and Berlin. Düsseldorf is well known for its art scene, but in the capital there is always something going on. I looked at both cities and Berlin simply left a much stronger impression on me.
I often tell this story. When I came to Berlin with a night bus, I arrived at the Kaiser Wilhelm square. It was winter then and still dark. And then I saw this damaged church. I found it extraordinary that right there – in the middle of the city – there is a broken church. Just like this, not restored. I was walking around the city for two weeks and I knew that I want to live here. I confirmed my first impression of the city. Up to date Berlin has always provided me with new inspiration. The city has never disappointed me.
D.S.: You talk of inspiration. In the texts you have sent me, you describe the main theme of your art. Can you say something about this? Did it only develop in Berlin? And how is it linked to your style?
R.K.: Well I must say that my goal was very clear to me already a long time ago. It was simply my fate, with playing go and such. The contrast between my home and the metropolis of Tokyo made me ponder already very early in my life and this is why my theme and goal soon became clear too. But regarding the technique…well in Japan you learn it the classical way. That’s why I didn’t have much opportunity to experience contemporary art. This I something I mainly experienced in Berlin. Naturally this often influenced me, my technique and my perspective. I never tried to simply steel the style of other artists, but the experience often served as incentives to come to grips with my own style.
D.S.: I perceive your paintings to be highly political. How do you think about this? How can art – how can your paintings – be politically effective? Do you want to raise attention? Do you want to comment? Or do you think that your art itself can change something?
R.K.: Well firstly, for me…how can I say this...I don’t think much about whether my pictures are conceived to be art or part of a political movement. It simply emerges from my own will, since I am personally very concerned about environmental problems. I simply want to communicate my position to as many people as possible. On the other hand my means of expression is painting and this is of course connected with art. If my work wasn’t interesting as art, I couldn’t bring my message to the people. This is why, while I am primarily concerned about my message, I don’t forget to develop both my own style and my art as contemporary art.
D.S.: If you say this part is my message and this part is my art, does that mean you are also politically active in other ways? Are you for example member of a particular group?
R.K.: I was a member of Greenpeace for some time, here in Berlin. I participated in a few events, but I was always wondering whether this was really my purpose, if it really was what I wanted to do. For example…well…some part of this organization disappointed me. Many people do participate, but some do it very superficially. They organize some events against Shell or some oil companies, yet at the same time they are wearing leatherjackets or shoes. This made me feel that they are not wholeheartedly for environmental politics or animal protection. It is of course very important that many people participate in such events, but I have already found my purpose, something that perhaps only I can do. At the time I thought I want to reach some people from the art scene. There are many people who might really accomplish something and I found it important to address these people directly. Because of that for the time being I won’t participate in any political groups.
However if I become really successful and my financial situation gets better, I would of course try to support such groups. But not as an activist. I will not participate in such events for now.
D.S.: Okay. When I look at your paintings and at what happened during the last year in Japan, especially the disaster in Fukushima, we can say that the country virtually fell apart. Years ago you already painted scenes which depict the current situation very well. How did you feel about the events?
R.K.: Well atomic energy has always been a big issue in energy politics and hence it was an important part of my art too. One year before 9/11 happened – this terror – I had painted a very similar picture too. Of course this was coincidence, but there were burning skyscrapers and such…but such catastrophes and accidents are totally imaginable. If you look at the world it is obvious that things like this would eventually happen. Of course I do not have a special power to predict the future, but when I make up my mind I am not surprised that such things happen. It is self evident that tragedies like the one in Fukushima would happen. I am just sad that it couldn’t be avoided, that the world politics didn’t do anything before it was too late.
D.S. Looking at your art I often find it very critical. Do you see any positive tendencies in politics or society right now? Do you have hope that catastrophes can be avoided in the future?
R.K.: Yes of course. There are always positive tendencies like the movement for alternative energy sources like solar or wind energy – and now there is also a movement against atomic energy. But of course all this needs to become much stronger, much more. I always think positive, but if it goes on like this, there is really no future, then everything will truly go down. This is why, as long as global politics go on like this, I must paint critical pictures.
D.S.: When you hint at such things, do you have the feeling to get through to people? Who is coming to your exhibitions? Who is looking at your work? Have there been any politicians to your exhibitions for example? – Things like this can always happen in Berlin.
R.K.: Well…firstly when I exhibit my work with other artists in a gallery, this gallery of course has its own clientele. People don’t come specifically for me. Most people still view me as a young artist, one that is perhaps a little critical. Generally everybody is interested in my art, but because my pieces are a little explosive and have such a specific goal, the reactions are very different. In my case this is extreme. Either people are very enthusiastic about my work or they react very naive and say: No, this is simply too crass, too harsh, it looks much too violent and cynical. The general reaction is good, but from an economical point of view I cannot say it’s very positive. Slowly my pictures begin to be sold to art collectors and such, but I simply need to exhibit much more for an extended period of time. I must become better known, then people will look at my work more specifically as political or critical art. But when I show my work in small galleries and people don’t know what I want to accomplish, they may find my art annoying or overly critical.
D.S.: All right. My last question is about your future plans. Clearly you want to have more exhibitions, but what are your concrete projects and what do you wish to accomplish in the long run?
R.K.: I really do have a big goal. It’s not that I want to become a great artist, rather I am very dissatisfied with the art world as it is today. Many things are simply eye-catching and superficial. Many people try to do new or sensational things and simply because it’s sensational the press covers it. It’s a domino effect. If you see things like this in the media you think that the artist must be very successful and as a result his art will sell. To me such an art world appears pointless and decadent. Rich people collect art plainly for their own enjoyment. So yes, my first goal is to communicate my own message, but my second goal is, that I want to be better known, so that my art can influence other artists as well. I don’t want to be like Joseph Beuys and have many co-workers. I don’t want to start a group. I simply want that other artists will begin to think in another direction as well. This is my hope.
D.S. Very well. Thank you for the interview!